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Bosnia: Analysis From Washington--Blank TV Screens Fight An Ideology

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 20 October 1997 (RFE/RL)--The sabotage of a television transmitter on Saturday by Bosnian Serb hardliners is only the latest act in a drama which highlights how difficult it is to fight an ideology, however abhorrent, simply by seeking to suppress it.

Two weeks ago, the NATO-led Stabilization Force occupied four television transmission towers in the Bosnian Serb entity in order to prevent the followers of Radovan Karadzic, who has been indicted for war crimes, from using the airwaves to spread their anti-democratic and anti-NATO messages.

That step followed threats by SFOR to use American planes to jam these broadcasts if the Bosnian Serbs did not agree to abide by international norms of broadcasting and to share airtime among the various contenders in elections there.

Then last Thursday, the Bosnian Serb hardliners used a transmitter at Veliki Zep to resume their broadcasts. Twenty-four hours later, NATO commanders warned the Serb authorities that they would be conducting a "technical inspection" of the site in the near future.

And then on Saturday, SFOR sent armored personnel carriers and helicopters to this station. For a brief time, programming prepared by supporters of Republika Srbska President Biljana Plavsic was again on the air. But the hardliners had removed some necessary equipment, and the station went off the air, leaving the television screens of the region blank.

Simon Haselock, a spokesman for international peace envoy Carlos Westendorp, denounced the Bosnian Serb hardliners for what he called "a wanton act of vandalism." He added that the blank television screens was entirely "the fault of the Pale apparatchiks." Pale is the center of Karadzic's forces.

Given the content of the Bosnian Serb hardliner broadcasts -- comparing NATO forces to Nazi occupiers and regularly inciting ethnic hatred inside Bosnia -- it is no surprise that both NATO commanders interested in the security of their troops and world leaders desirous of peace in Bosnia should want these broadcasts off the air.

But there are three reasons why closing down television transmitters may not work in the way that many intend.

First, the possibility that the extremists will simply find new transmitters is all too real. The Bosnian Serb hardliners did just that last week, and they may do so again now that SFOR has seized the Veliki Zep studios.

Second, just as being accused of war crimes has enhanced the status of some Bosnian Serb leaders in the eyes of some Bosnian Serbs, so too SFOR's closing of television broadcasting studios may appear to some people there to lend credence to the claims of extremists that only they are standing up to outsiders.

And third, seizing media outlets such as these television transmitters deeply embroils the NATO-led forces in the region, effectively changing them from being a military operation with a limited agenda into an occupation authority.

No one concerned about peace and democracy in Bosnia can be happy about the broadcasts of the Bosnian Serb hardliners, but experience elsewhere suggests that there may be a better way first to contain and then to defeat their ugly messages.

And that way is to defeat their messages with alternative ones. In the democratic West, it has long been a fundamental principle of political life that the best way to overcome messages of hate is with alternative messages of hope.

Indeed, it was by following that principle that the Western democracies were able to undermine and ultimately defeat communist tyranny in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Were that principle to be applied in Bosnia now, it would mean that SFOR would be establishing more media outlets, including television stations, to allow more democratic groups within the Bosnian Serb community to reach their audiences.

And it would mean that the Western democracies would be increasing even more than they have so far international radio broadcasting, such as that carried on by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America, to that war-torn country.

Creating a genuine marketplace of ideas in which the good can drive out the bad, of course, will not be easy or quick. But trying to reach the goals of the international community for Bosnia in any other way seems certain to entail difficulties that neither it nor the Bosnian Serbs want.